Sunday, 15 March 2009

Travel reading, travel writing, and the public library

[The Fells Branch of the Wellesley Free Library, where I got my first library card]

I spent the weekend in Sacramento, where I was interviewed by Jeffrey Callison on Capital Public Radio’s Insight show (the segment with me is from 20-35 minutes into the audio archive) and gave one of the keynote speaches at the Sacramento Library Foundation’s annual fundraising dinner, this year on the theme of travel books and, The Places We Go .

I took Amtrak to Sacramento , which seemed to surprise some of my hosts — although it shouldn’t. The Capital Corridor (San Jose-Oakland-Sacramento) is Amtrak’s third-busiest route after the Northeast Corridor (Boston-New York-Washington) and the Pacific Surfliner (San Luis Obispo-Santa Barbara-Los Angeles-San Diego).

Amtrak runs buses into downtown San Francisco, but from where I live it’s much easier to take BART (regional rapid transit) to Richmond, where the BART and Amtrak platforms are side by side and it’s as easy to transfer between BART and Amtrak as to change from one BART platform to the other. Unfortunately, neither BART nor Amtrak advertises Richmond as a BART-Amtrak interchange, or permits you to search for or view through BART-Amtrak connecting schedules.

Having written several articles recently about computerized railroad reservation systems, I should mention that Amtrak’s computers were down when I got to Richmond, so I wasn’t able to print out my prepaid ticket from the automated kiosk. To Amtrak’s credit — and in contrast to most airlines in the USA, which either won’t let passengers with electronic tickets board, or won’t let flights depart at all if their reservations systems are down — the train operated on schedule and all passengers were cheerfully accommodated by the train crew. It was, however, a reminder of the potential problems with e-tickets, and the importance of always carrying a printout of your ticket receipt and confirmation. It was also a reminder that neither railroads nor airlines have to set up their systems to be so vulnerable to computer failure: We travelled without incident with e-tickets on Ethiopian Airlines, even making a 90-minute connection between domestic flights, when the power had been out for most of the previous 48 hours at our point of embarkation in Lalibela. Few airlines anywhere in the world come close to Ethiopian for operational excellence, but few even try to prepare contingency plans to keep flying during power, computer, communications, and other systems outages.

The weekend was good fun in a good cause, as well as a chance to meet some of my readers and NPR listeners in the Great Central Valley, and I thought some of my readers elsewhere might be interested in my remarks about the relationship between travel, travel writing, and travel reading:

Last year I traveled 80,000 miles around the world through 28 countries on six continents. I didn’t sleep in my own bed for more than a year. But the world is a big place, and I saw only a small part of it. More than anything, travel teaches me how little I know. I came home with more questions than answers, and I hope that you, too, will go home tonight with more questions than answers — questions to be answered, perhaps, at the public library.

When you travel, do you want to do nothing, to escape from the world? Or do you travel to immerse yourself in the world, to experience it, to learn from it? Sometimes we learn the most from the places that are the most different. They show us ways to do things that we never imagined were part of the menu of human possibilities. But how do we bootstrap enough understanding to be able to learn from places that are so different from what we are accustomed to? Are travel writing, and travel reading, part of the answer?

I read before each trip, and I read local publications while I’m on the road. I look for books by local people that explain how they see the world. These exist, in English, everywhere, if you look for them — and if you’re prepared to order them on inter-library loan. I’m still reading some of the books I brought home from my last trip, where now I have personal impressions to contextualize the allusions in writing from and about the places I visited.

We bring home souvenirs and photos. But do the photos become our memories? Do we remember the things we didn’t photograph or buy? Do our memories become fixed, so we continue to think of places only as they were when we were there? Writing and reading are ways to broaden the scope of what we remember and what we learn, to update our memories and pictures of places we visited in the past, and to include in our memories the intangibles that we can’t bring home and that aren’t necessarily photogenic.

Our most important souvenirs may be the changes that travel brings about in how we see the world, and how we act. Isn’t “It changed how I look at the world”, the ultimate praise for any book as well as any journey? Should I call myself a “travel writer”, or a facilitator of personal growth and self-actualization? Or should I just be honest about the thrill of travel, and say that what I do is to empower people to fulfill their travel fantasies?

But is travel, and travel writing, more about reality or fantasy? And is that changing?

Until recently, few people could afford to travel. Everyone else relied on what was written by those few adventurers who returned from far-off lands, whether that was Marco Polo bringing descriptions of the East back to Europe, Zhang Qian bringing news of Western lands back to China, or Mark Twain describing the strange land and stranger customs of California to readers several weeks’ journey away back East.

Only within my lifetime has that changed. 50 years ago, the cheapest plane ticket across the Atlantic or the Pacific cost the equivalent of what a ticket on the Concorde would later cost. Today, for a month’s wages, an ordinary American worker can fly to almost anywhere in the world and back. Travel is cheaper, easier, and faster than ever in history.

Just as photography freed painters from the need for realism, so the ability of ordinary people to travel the world for themselves has freed travel writers from being compelled to fill the role of journalists or geographers. And that freedom has contributed to a flowering of more diverse styles and forms of travel literature and writing about place in recent years.

Today, “armchair travel” is no longer a substitute for travel, but a form of literary foreplay to real-world travel by readers.

For example, I don’t need to tell people what I’ve seen. Instead, I focus on helping people get to places and experience them for themselves. I talk about specific places, but mainly as examples of lessons in travel skills. There are lots of specific tips in my books on how to have a successful trip, especially on how to find the time and money for extended international travel, but I’m a firm believer in the “teach a traveller to fish” school of travel advice.

What will the future of travel, and travel writing, be like, in a world of oil depletion and global warming? Has air travel, in particular, already passed its peak of affordability?

On land, there are alternatives. We can walk or ride bicycles, or use mass transit. Trains can be powered by electricity produced from renewable sources. Will we see a resurgence of rail travel even here in the land of the automobile?

What about travel between continents? There are no electric or low-emission airplanes, nor any powered by renewable fuel. Will ships once again be the only way to cross the oceans, slowly and expensively?

And if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to travel the world, what are we doing now to see that an infrastructure of trains and mass transit and even passenger ships is put in place before the oil runs out and the era of air travel ends?

And to return to the question of travel writing: In the future, if fewer people can afford to travel overseas, and most of us once again have to learn about the world through what those few have written, will we see a return to a more journalistic style of narrative travel writing by future generations of Marco Polos and Zhang Qians?

In the meantime, now is the time to travel — especially internationally. The U.S. Dollar is higher than it’s been in years against almost every other currency in the world, and with fewer people travelling there are smaller crowds, shorter lines, and lots of hotel rooms available at fire-sale prices — worldwide.

Will our descendants look back on us as part of only 2 or 3 generations in all of human history, past, present, or future, who have the chance to see the world, meet its people, and learn about it through our own direct experience? What are we doing to take advantage of this precious opportunity?

I got my first library card on my 5th birthday, in a neighborhood branch library in a former one-room schoolhouse in the New England town where I grew up. In my mind’s eye, I can still see my hand shaking as I carefully signed my name on my new card, as though I were Willie Wonka cashing in a golden ticket to the whole wide world in that one little room full of books. Ever since, libraries have been landmarks wherever I go. Among our souvenirs from our latest trip around the world are cards from libraries as far afield as the Black Watch Library in Ticonderoga, New York — endowed by one of your predecessors in library philanthropy, Andrew Carnegie — to the Victorian State Library in Melbourne, Australia. But libraries aren’t just destinations, opening the door to the world of books and more, but also starting point and inspiration for real-world travel: Truly libraries are the places that launched a thousand journeys.

So I hope that for all of you, coming here tonight is not just an exercise in armchair travel — even if that’s one of my favorite pastimes — but a step toward making more of your dreams of travel come true for real.

With the help, perhaps, of a few good books. (Maybe even including mine.)

Bon voyage!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 15 March 2009, 19:45 ( 7:45 PM)

Thanks for sharing this article with us and the nice weekend that you have and to your articles done.I am hoping that you can make more articles and can be read by all of us.:)

Posted by: Travel-world, 19 March 2009, 22:41 (10:41 PM)

There's an interesting thread of discussion at prompted by this essay:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 27 April 2009, 09:26 ( 9:26 AM)

Ah - an article such as this warms the cockles of my heart. The relationship between travel and travel reading of any sort is a crucial one.

But taking this beyond the travelogue....

Can I ask whether you find reading novels set in particular places is also an impetus for travel? And how about the other side of the coin? Does reading a novel set in a place you are traveling to enhance that experience?


Posted by: Suzi, 24 July 2010, 10:41 (10:41 AM)
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